Ignacy Karpowicz, winner of the prestigious Polityka Passport Prize, is back with a fascinating new novel. nesses is a highly humorous tale about the need for close-ness and kind-ness, and perhaps, most importantly, about other-ness, which when laid out against this fabular landscape becomes ordinari-ness. Once again, this Polish writer demonstrates that he is constantly developing—each of his previous books was different; his warmly received debut Uncool is a grotesque joyride through Polish capitalism, Gestures an investigation of the difficult relationship between mother and son, and his much-lauded Balladinas and Romances an original approach to the presence of religion in today’s world.
This time Karpowicz’s protagonist is a collective one. He turns his curious gaze, so full of warmth, on the (not all bad) bourgeois, all fully fixated on their own, mostly romantic, problems. The characters in his books come from Poland’s middle class and represent a wide spectrum of attitudes and views. They include Norbert, who, despite not expressing much sympathy for homosexuals in general, is himself engaged in an affair with the Vietnamese Kuan (who turns into famous drag queen Kim Lee in the evenings). Meanwhile he flirts with a female professor by the name of Ninel, who herself remains in a strange relationship with Szymon, husband to unstable Maya, the mother of a teenage son and sister of fervently Catholic Faustina. And a friend of Andrzej, who lives with the chaotic Krzyś… And so on. Summarizing Karpowicz’s new novel makes it sound like an Almodovar film. Except that the Polish writer presents this diverse cast of colorful characters (whom he renders beautifully) in a manner devoid of madness. It’s a harmonious, very funny story of everyday life that sometimes gets just a little bit out of control, and yet that disorder does not lead to high drama—in fact, what it leads to is the creation of a new, more satisfying (?) order.
Daily life stripped down to these essential “–nesses” might seem frightening in its messi-ness, but it ultimately isn’t here. Karpowicz manages to defuse its provocative charge and put it all in order, and in writing a book that actively engages with the world, in creating a kind of ideal society—open to difference, tolerant, free of prejudices—what he’s really doing is simply telling us the story of a couple of nice, somewhat lost people, a story characterized, all in all, by perfect ordinari-ness.
How could it be otherwise, since—as the author demonstrates—our lives, though to us seemingly the most important in the world, are actually component parts of millions of structures and systems much larger and more important than we are—which is precisely why that small-ness is the right scale for investigating this type of moral turmoil.
“Maya, you’re the most amazing person in the whole world.”
“Sorry, did you say something?”
Only then did Maya realize that her silent mantra had overflowed into sound. She blushed. It wasn’t talking to herself that she found embarrassing. Crazy people on public transportation blabbering on to God and sundry didn’t really bother her. But at least they had something to blabber about. It was their fellow passengers—the silent ones—who ought to feel embarrassed.
What Maya found embarrassing now was the contents of the words she had uttered. For safety reasons, and for the sake of her own dignity, she thought she ought to change mantras, say something less personal. She thought of phrases that were neutral vis-à-vis the ego, like “Please don’t push, sir,” and “Tickets, please.” She thought she would try out the first phrase, although she couldn’t imagine that it would be as reassuring as “Maya, you’re the most amazing person in the world.”
She had not murmured her new therapeutic phrase even twice when that other voice returned:
“I heard you quite distinctly. You were saying something.”
She surrendered. She glanced up now in search of the source of that irritating jabber. She wasn’t expecting anything in particular—perhaps if anything a transistor radio—but still, what she saw was something she really wasn’t expecting. Standing there before her was a broad-shouldered man around thirty years of age, with painstakingly gelled hair parted on the right, symmetrical facial features, a complexion free of any imperfection, wart, or pimple, smooth-shaven cheeks, an outline of facial hair as clear as the line taken by the Vatican on gender equality. Beneath his unbuttoned gray jacket he wore a perfectly white shirt. She didn’t check to see what his trousers looked like because she was afraid to glance down now—it would probably look like she was inspecting his crotch, like she numbered among the sexually ravenous, and even if it had in fact looked altogether otherwise, or like nothing at all, Maya had already gotten it into her head that it would look like that, hence she invested all of her willpower in keeping her neck straight.
Looking the stranger straight in the eye, she wanted to ask what kind of trousers he was wearing, given that for largely objective reasons entirely independent of her she was not able to determine this on her own. Fortunately, she managed to keep herself quiet. The man introduced himself, providing far too much information, in a fashion that was crisp and orderly, and to Maya’s tastes, exaggeratedly, irritatingly, precise. Here before her, she thought, was the Model Son of Terrific Parents.
Anxiety sent shivers down her spine: this man had been raised in a dysfunctional family in which every single morning his sadistic mother had arranged his hair, making him wear clothing straight out of her own nightmarish vision of the perfect child, approximately a century out of date. Meanwhile his father, Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass, gave the same instructions every single morning: “Remember, Son, always look your interlocutor in the eyes when you are conversing.”
Maya’s imagination was racing. She pictured Monsieur Comme-il-faut at the table, finishing up his lunch; on a plate otherwise so clean it was as if it had never seen food in the first place, there remained a single pea. Any normal person would be there for fifteen minutes chasing that pea around with his fork, but not Mister Precision-Engineered. With a single terrifying gesture he took up his fork and impaled the single pea upon it. He lifted it to his mouth. Maya was more and more scared. It was now beyond a shadow of a doubt: here before her, standing face to face with her, was a deadly creature, a brunet barracuda. She had to dredge up some reassuring counter-image from her imagination. She thought of her son, his mohawk, his casual relationship with soap and water—but thinking of her son only made Maya feel worse. Now she became afraid that her beloved Bruno might someday meet this Beast in the snow-white collar and that he might come down with his disease, shave off his mohawk, and part his hair! Dear God, she thought, please, not Bruno!
“I should have taken a taxi.”
“You always get such awful people on the bus.”
“Are you referring to me, by any chance?”
“Soon they’ll have stops on demand,” she said, her voice shaking, nearly failing her. “I demand, sir, that you get off this bus.”
He smiled. “I have a feeling,” he said, “that my mother would take quite a liking to you.”
“Oh, I suck at mothers. I fear I would not reciprocate your mother’s feelings.” She very nearly added, “After all, she did raise a monster,” but she managed to stop herself just in time. This small victory—not always did Maya manage to refrain from saying what she didn’t intend to say—comforted her. The bus was crowded, and she was in no danger—at worst she might catch the flu or some fungus from her fellow passengers; rape, however, could now be crossed off her list of high-probability threats. The situation was simply and uncomfortably as follows: she was speaking with a polite, astonishingly clean, high-quality man who had been assembled in a kind of hyperrealist manner.
“You don’t have to get off at the next stop,” she said in a conciliatory tone after a long pause. “You can wait till we get where you’re going.”
He lowered his head a little. He cleared his throat as though troubled.
“I’d really like to get to know you a little better. I have to say you’ve made quite an impression on me.”
She now took another look at him. The fact that he was interested in her allowed Maya to evaluate him anew, with a little bit more sympathy, or at least a little less antipathy. She acknowledged now that he might be able to be sullied slightly, have his hair ruffled, spout two or three pimples on his cheeks, in which case he would be a horse of another color altogether. She might even be able to take him with her to the club. He was probably not a psychopath, just a person who was behind the times in conceptual, civilizational, and/or hygienic terms.
“During the November Uprising, which is clearly where you’ve just come from, did you get away with picking up young maidens on public transportation?”
While he strained to summon the right rejoinder, she imagined Mister I-Pee-Pure-Mountain-Spring-Water amidst a series of younger siblings. The whole litter at the table, attacking that pea with their forks in unison, on command. The scene struck Maya as so touchingly comic that she didn’t even try to hide her smile.
“I can’t quite,” he confessed finally, gravely, “come up with a witty retort.”
“It’s the opposite for me,” said Maya. “Witty retorts occur to me all the time. But what difference does that make if I couldn’t care less about whatever it is I’m retorting to?”
“Could I ask you to dinner?”
Maya was more and more interested now in the stranger, particularly his impeccable appearance. She felt simultaneously like an archaeologist, a government health inspector, and a biologist who has just discovered an extraterrestrial life form. She practically felt like the inventor of Teflon. The inventor of the purest substance on earth; well, maybe ex aequo with the communion wafer.
“Are you sweating?” she asked.
“Hmm. Yes, now, for example, my hands are sweating due to nervousness. My palms, actually.”
“I’ll answer all of your questions on condition that we go out one night.”
“Okay. In a well-lit, public place. Do you ever get a runny nose? You know... snot?”
“This is where I get off,” he said. “The next stop. Please give me your number.”
Maya dictated her number. He extracted a business card from a very slender leather billfold.
“I’ll call you tomorrow. The card is just in case,” he said. “Goodbye.”
He got off; she did not watch. She didn’t know what would be worse: if he stood and watched her, or if he just turned around and marched off. Maya didn’t like looking when she didn’t know what she wanted to see. The gaze that was not determined in advance was an extremely risky one, and she had no desire to come down with conjunctivitis at present.
Her head was all abuzz – not with delicate little champagne bubbles, but with something stronger, clearly hydraulic, like the noises of a jacuzzi. Blub-blub. Blub-blub. Must urgently get rid of the plumber, she thought, stuck inside my skull.
One minute the conversation on the bus seemed to her to have been a completely unreliable product of her antidepressants, and the next minute something pathetic, as though she were trying to impersonate the adolescent girl she had been ages ago. She replayed it over and over again in her head, always starting out with that awkward prologue (“Maya, you’re the most amazing person in the whole world”), and each time it all sounded more and more desperately pretentious. People who are truly intelligent and well-brought-up shouldn’t say things that directly express their intelligence and excellent upbringing. Intelligent, well-mannered people would choose a polite topic. The weather. Raising the retirement age. The train wreck. The number of victims.
Translated by Jennifer Croft